Ain't I a woman? Fighting the patriarchy means fighting racism, too

Ain't I a woman? Fighting the patriarchy means fighting racism, too
Comment: You can't fight misogyny, without also fighting social inequality, racism, xenophobia and homophobia, writes Malia Bouattia.
7 min read
08 Mar, 2019
The first Women's March occurred the day after Trump's inauguration in 2017 [Getty]
Women in the West can be fooled into thinking that feminism has finally hit the mainstream. 

I mean, even your local supermarket is likely to stock t-shirts and jumpers sporting statements like 'feminist' 'women power', or 'we can do it'.

Discussions around International Women's Day (IWD) often tackle sexual harassment, and champion women in traditionally male dominated sectors. But the reality of women's oppression and exploitation at the cost of successful 'feminist' branding, presents a stark contrast.

The Guardian recently uncovered that 'girl power' t-shirts which were being sold online by F= were being made in a Bangladeshi factory where workers were underpaid (some earning as little as 42p an hour), and mistreated.

Over 100 workers had lost their jobs due to the strike action they had taken part in to oppose their continued exploitation.

The fact that each of these t-shirts was being sold for $36, and $13 of which was donated to the charity Worldreader which provides digital books to poor children across Africa, demonstrates the surface level work being done supposedly in the name of women's liberation.

This entire debacle points to the emptiness of such efforts, because it attempts to engage on a very mild political level; supposedly empowering women in the West using a commodity, while also sending part of those earnings over to impoverished African ones.

Gender-based oppression does not exist in isolation from other oppressions; class, race, sexuality

There is very little willingness to strive for a deeper understanding about the lack of 'girl power', due to the gender based structural inequality which exists in our society, or the historical role that the UK and other European nations have played in the impoverishment, both economic and academic - across the African continent.

This basic factual understanding should catapult an individual or group to respond with political action targeted at power structures, politicians, and corporate bosses, not by performing a consumer culture variation of what our liberation might look like.

'Different forms of structural oppression do not take place in isolation from one another' [Getty]

There are many variations on this theme.

Take Theresa May for example. On the one hand, she is celebrated as a woman in power, the second female British PM, a strong female roll model etc.

She wears a t-shirt with the sentence 'This is what a feminist looks like' on it and mobilises her position in the Conservative Party and as head of state, to attack the Labour Party's lack of female leadership.

Yet, what is her actual record?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, austerity and cuts have hit women hard in general, and harder than men in particular.

As the Women's Budget group points out, by next year, women will have experienced an effective average pay cut of £1003, and men just £555.

Our struggle is not to get more women into power, but to redistribute power among all women

They also highlight that the vast majority of cuts in benefits and tax regulations will affect women disproportionally.

Women's state-retirement age has gone up by five years under May's leadership. This is to say nothing of the particularly gendered forms of racism that migrant women in detention centres, Muslim women targeted by the 'War on Terror', or black women being deported to the Caribbean after decades in this country, are going through.

Part of the problem with the cultural reading of women's liberation that we are continuously bombarded with, is the failure to centre capitalism as the root of all the issues affecting women. This is a failure to understand that gender-based oppression does not exist in isolation from other oppressions; class, race and sexuality, amongst others.

The examples above point to just that: Our oppressions are connected and can only be fought through a systemic analysis and a generalised fight back.

Intersectionality - a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the intersecting oppressions that individuals face - has become a buzzword now, emptied of its radical origins in the black feminist struggle.

Yet its meaning remains crucial: Different forms of structural oppression do not take place in isolation from one another, rather, they are all connected.

The problem lies in the idea that you can fight misogyny, without also fighting social inequality, racism, xenophobia, homophobia etc.

The practice of intersectionality requires far more than what corporate campaigns like L'Oréal's have portrayed - a superficial, tokenistic, heavily depoliticised form of diversity which silences any participants, including its own former models, such as Amena Khan and Munroe Bergdorf who attempt to take on actual structural oppressions.

Millionaires, entrepreneurs, right-wing politicians, and companies will not free us.

In fact, their very existence is predicated on exploiting, oppressing, and impoverishing the rest of us. The women who 'smash the glass ceiling' do not point towards our collective liberation.

Instead they highlight that modern capitalism has increasingly recruited allies among the oppressed in society and enlisted them in the reproduction and defence of the system that keeps the rest of the world down as a precondition for their wealth and power.

If an event or campaign tries to cover women's liberation, women's empowerment, or International Women's Day, but doesn't talk about the structural factors women face, doesn't highlight our systematic oppression, or the state's role in our current worsening situation, it is empty of meaning or value.

International Women's Day was in part borne out of the struggle of working class Jewish women striking against the horrendous conditions they faced at work, and the oppression they faced in society.

Our oppressions are connected and can only be fought through a systemic analysis and a generalised fight back

They fought back, not simply to do better in the system as it was, but to tear it down. This remains our task today.

I am sometimes invited by events organisers on a feminist platform and told that they want to create a powerful and uplifting space, and that I should, therefore, keep my contributions focused on the positives.

I usually respond with "That's impossible", not because I'm particularly thrilled to constantly discuss our oppression as women, and specifically as women of colour, nor because I don't want to empower, but because it would be contrary to the reason that the entire event was necessary to begin with.

The reason that we mark International Women's Day, that feminists, women's collectives, women's marches, strikes and hashtags exist, is because we are exploited, and exploited more than men.

We are discriminated against, because we are forced to endure psychological and physical abuse by the state, because our reproductive rights are still under attack, because we continue to be spoken of and about but rarely included in the conversation, because we are told we need to be liberated but never allowed to fight for our liberation.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is a case in point. When she was elected, Democrats loved to celebrate a black, Muslim, migrant, woman in a hijab entering Congress. But the moment she spoke out against Israel and AIPAC she was attacked and thrown under the bus.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in 'girl power', even if I'm not particularly fond of the infantilising term, and I think celebrating it is important.

I have witnessed it in the struggles of migrant women at the Yarls wood detention centre, who fight for their freedoms daily, in Palestinian women fighting Israel's occupation and dispossession, in the hundreds of thousands who joined the women's march in the US against the politics of Trump, and in the Algerian women who are taking to the streets today to demand the fall of the repressive regime.

Read more: Saving Saudi women, but from what?

I have seen it my entire life in my mother's uncompromising spirit in the face of xenophobic, racist, and Islamophobic institutions, which constantly told her that her daughters would fail academically, because she was a poor migrant women of colour.

This power exists within all of us, and when it is applied collectively, only then, has it, and will it continue to transform the world around us.

So this International Women's Day, let us march, let us strike, let us revolt.

And let's once and for all claim proudly and loudly that our struggle is revolutionary, that our struggle is united, and that our struggle is not to get more women into power, but to redistribute power among all women.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.